The U.S. national team is returning to a soccer nation that feels a little different to the one they left less than a month ago.
A country where a sport dismissed as niche went front-and-center. A country where local heroes became national icons. A country that wore its heart and soul on the sleeves of its red, white and blue replica jerseys.
A country that once derided soccer as “un-American," yet is realizing that there is nothing more American than a sport with the power to unite a nation in support of a diverse group of players who worked tirelessly together to be the best they possibly could. A team with formidable collective spirit, immense national pride and individual excellence exemplified by the performance of goalkeeper Tim Howard in Tuesday’s round-of-sixteen defeat by Belgium.
Whether the casual fans or the merely curious still feel that way in a day, a week, a month or a year is to be seen. The challenge now for MLS is to build on the goodwill, enthusiasm and interest inspired by this World Cup and to make sure every U.S. soccer fan is also a supporter of America’s top domestic league. To turn this honeymoon period into a long-lasting and meaningful relationship.
“This presents the opportunity to maybe convert some of those casual soccer fans into fans of MLS. And then you have just your curious onlookers, and there are lots of stories of people who caught World Cup fever and then decided to pay attention to a specific MLS club, usually in their home market, and ultimately became season ticket holders,” MLS executive vice-president of communications Dan Courtemanche said last week.
From talk radio that normally focuses on news or the other sort of football, to social media, to the big network television shows, it seems like everybody’s been talking about soccer in the past couple of weeks. Ratings have set records, with Americans tuning in to watch Jurgen Klinsmann’s team in unprecedented numbers.
It’s a step towards a scenario where generations will grow up with soccer as a normal part of everyday American culture; exposed to it by a media that is increasingly treating it as an established part of the sporting landscape. Youth participation, long at impressive levels, will translate into more kids who stick with soccer when they become adults. Because soccer will be accessible and credible.
For Dynamo goalkeeper Tally Hall, the biggest benefits of thrilling tournaments like this World Cup will be reaped in the coming years. “This one has definitely been the most viewed and people are almost like ‘hey, what’s all this fuss about?’, and I think people are getting into it. I think that’s going to have a huge impact ten years from now, 15 years from now,” he said.
“Growing up you look at the generation of soccer players now. Their parents typically did not play soccer. My parents didn’t play soccer. When the ’94 World Cup was here I only remember watching a handful of games because it just wasn’t part of what we did.
“I got involved in soccer because I played it. To have watching soccer be mainstream, acceptable and promoted, that’s going to affect kids. People are growing up and they’re going to remember that feeling and it’s going to make an impact on them. We have this beautiful thing right now with how this World Cup is going and how soccer is going, but the impact is going to be extremely clear in a decade.”
The Belgium game kicked off at 3 p.m. CT, when plenty of Houstonians will have been stuck in work. Yet the bars and streets around BBVA Compass Stadium were crammed, even hours before the start, with fans gathering to cheer on the Americans.
The passion was every bit as authentic, the crowds every bit as loud, as you might find if you watched a big match in another, longer-established soccer country. One where the sport forms an intrinsic part of the fabric of daily cultural and social life. Where soccer defines the identity and self-worth of individuals, cities, entire nations.
“Hands down, every year it gets better”, said Robert, a Dynamo fan from the Third Ward who was draped in a Stars and Stripes flag as if it was Superman’s cape as he stood in Little Woodrow’s bar with hundreds of other believers. Hailing from an area just a short distance from the stadium, he was delighted that Dynamo captain Brad Davis was in Brazil representing the club and the city on the greatest global stage.
“It’s great, I love seeing people come together for the U.S. because you don’t see it often,” said Maya, a Houstonian now living in Atlanta who stood next to him. Up in Chicago, more than 25,000 people were reported to have attended a viewing party at Soldier Field: soccer fans out in force at one of the most famous NFL venues.
“Soccer’s dominating the headlines, it’s gone mainstream and is generating huge buzz,” said Dynamo president Chris Canetti on Tuesday at an event in BBVA Compass Stadium to announce BHP Billiton as a new jersey sponsor for the Dynamo and the Houston Dash.
The Dynamo will hope that buzz will be heard loud and clear at Friday’s home game against the New York Red Bulls (7:30 p.m. CT; TICKETS) and far into the future. League-wide, average attendances compare well with the NBA and NHL and with soccer crowds in Argentina, France and the Netherlands.
Star players are arriving from overseas while they still have plenty to offer—from Clint Dempsey, Michael Bradley and Jermain Defoe to the latest, Kaka, who will suit up for Orlando City in 2015. The Florida team are joining MLS next year along with New York City FC, taking the number of franchises to 21.
And MLS players comprised a big slice of Klinsmann’s 23 man roster. Ten of his players are on the books of MLS clubs, while others, such as ex-Dynamo Geoff Cameron, learned their trade in the league. In the 2-2 draw with Portugal, seven of the U.S. starting lineup were current MLS men, including Davis. Against Belgium, the figure was six. Consciously or not, anyone praising the U.S. displays at this World Cup is also giving a shout-out to MLS.
“For a long time MLS has gone hugely underrated and if you look at it now, the [Portugal] game we started seven MLS players and those are current MLS players. If you look at the team and the effect MLS has had, it’s unquestionable that this league prepares you. If you can succeed in this league you can succeed on the world stage,” said Hall.
“There’s no questioning it now and if someone says MLS isn’t good enough, you can say: well it’s MLS players who helped bring the team into qualifying for the [round of 16]. That’s a big deal and you can’t argue with it any more.”
As the competition continues to grow and pursues ultimate victory—its target of becoming one of the world’s top leagues by 2022—it’s time for all involved in MLS to adopt the U.S. supporters’ chant that was the American soundtrack to this World Cup, and say, fortified with the confidence that comes from adding new teams, new stars and new fans: “I believe that we will win."
Tom Dart is a contributing writer to HoustonDynamo.com and HoustonDashSoccer.com. Former editor and reporter for The Times of London and reporter for SI.com, Dart currently freelances for The Guardian.